The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA) is a workers’ compensation law that covers private-sector employees who work in longshore, harbor, and certain other maritime occupations. While most workers’ compensation systems are created by state law and administered by state agencies, the LHWCA was created by Congress and is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. 

The federal government provides workers’ compensation benefits to federal employees, but it is unusual for a federal law to require private employers to provide workers’ compensation coverage to their employees. Apart from the LHWCA, the Black Lung Benefits Act provides compensation to coal miners who are totally disabled by pneumoconiosis that resulted from their employment. In addition, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act provides compensation to employees of vendors and contractors of the Department of Energy who are diagnosed with an illness that results from exposure to radiation, beryllium, or silica while employed at a covered facility.

Other federally mandated workers’ compensation programs have grown out of the LHWCA. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act covers employees who are injured while working offshore in certain jobs related to the oil and gas industry. The Defense Base Act mandates coverage of private employees who work for certain private contractors that provides services to the United States overseas. The Nonappropriated Fund Instrumentalities Act covers civilians working for the military in the United States.

Two additional federal laws allow seamen and railroad employees to sue their employers for work-related injuries. Those laws protect workers who are not covered by state workers’ compensation laws. The laws differ from workers’ compensation, however, because employees must prove that their employer was negligent before they can recover compensation.

The Rise of Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation laws generally arose from labor unrest at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. European nations were early adopters of laws that required employers to provide “no-fault” insurance benefits to employees who were injured on the job. 

American politicians were slower to recognize the social cost of leaving disabled workers with no job and no replacement income. Wisconsin became the first state to adopt a workers’ compensation law in 1911. The last state to adopt a workers’ compensation law was Mississippi in 1948.

While most non-federal workers were eventually covered by state workers’ compensation laws, it was unclear whether those laws applied to employees who worked on navigable waters. The ocean and any river or body of water that can be used for commercial transportation are generally included in the definition of “navigable waters.”

Navigable Waters: A Gap in State Workers’ Compensation Coverage

The U.S. Constitution grants jurisdiction to federal courts over certain kinds of cases, including “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.” Early in the twentieth century, courts began to ask whether state courts had jurisdiction over injuries that occur on navigable waters, or whether those injuries fall within maritime jurisdiction.

In 1917, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether New York’s workers’ compensation law applied to a maritime employee. Christen Jensen was employed as a stevedore by Southern Pacific, a company that operated a railroad and a steamship. His job involved driving a small electric truck onto the steamship, where it was loaded with cargo. He then drove the truck off the steamship and onto a pier where the cargo was unloaded. He was killed while trying to back the truck onto the ship after it became stuck on the gangway.

Jensen’s widow made a death benefit claim under the New York workers’ compensation law. The claim was granted. Southern Pacific then challenged the law, contending that it was an unconstitutional regulation of maritime law as applied to a stevedore who was working with goods that were moving in interstate commerce.

The Court agreed that New York’s workers’ compensation law was unconstitutional as applied to a stevedore. The Court held that the Constitution makes “maritime law” a matter of federal law. Since the Commerce Clause of the Constitution also gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, the Court concluded that Congress has the “paramount power” to pass legislation in the field of maritime law that affects interstate commerce.

Jensen’s work as a stevedore, the Court decided, was “maritime in nature.” Allowing New York to apply its workers’ compensation law to companies from other states that dock their ships at New York ports would destroy “the very uniformity in respect to maritime matters which the Constitution was designed to establish.” The Court decided that applying state law would also hamper interstate commerce. Under the circumstances, the Court held that federal courts had exclusive jurisdiction over the injury claim.

Enactment of LHWCA

Unfortunately for Jenson’s widow, no federal law authorized an award of compensation for his work-related death. New York had no jurisdiction to award compensation for maritime employment, but no federal law made workers’ compensation remedies available to stevedores and other employees who are working on navigable waters. The unfairness was obvious, but it took Congress another ten years to fix the problem.

Congress twice responded to the Jensen decision by passing laws that authorized states to extend their workers’ compensation laws to employees working on navigable waters. On both occasions, the Supreme Court decided that the laws were an unconstitutional attempt to delegate federal authority to the states.

In 1927, Congress finally enacted the LHWCA. The law was intended to provide workers’ compensation coverage for employees injured while working on navigable waters. In later years, courts were asked to resolve a variety of cases in which it was unclear whether the LHWCA or state workers’ compensation law applied. Congress has occasionally tried to clarify the law. For instance, Congress amended the LHWCA to make clear that it covers workers who are engaged in maritime employment either on navigable waters or adjacent land.

Despite the efforts of Congress, confusion about coverage persists. Fortunately, coverage for workplace injuries is generally available under either federal or state law. A lawyer who has experience handling both LHWCA cases and state workers’ compensation cases is in the best position to help injured workers decide where to make a claim for compensation.